The jewel of Clinton architecture is, without question, the Van Allen building. This building, which has just celebrated its first century of use, was designed by America’s ground breaking architect of the late 19th and early 20th century, Louis H. Sullivan. John D. Van Allen, who commissioned the design and construction of the building was referred to Sullivan by F.H. Shaver of The Peoples Savings Bank in Cedar Rapids. In a letter dated September 29, 1910, Mr. Shaver said “Mr. Sullivan designs buildings of great merit and simplicity”. He mentioned that Sullivan had designed the Transportation Building for the World Columbian Exposition in 1893, had designed the Auditorium building as well as the Carson Pirie Scott department store. He went on to state, “The interesting feature of this whole matter is that Mr. Sullivan does not charge more than other architects”.
The Van Allen building is Sullivan at his best. He used the theme of horizontality used earlier on the Carson, Pirie, Scott department story and applied it in a simplified fashion to the upper three floors of this building. In a similar fashion, Sullivan treated the sidewalk level first floor as a wide open space with large showcase windows. He penetrated down through the horizontal banded windows of the second floors with three theatrical explorations of rich terracotta ornament. These are stylistic flowers with their stems growing from brick suggesting earth and flowers burst forth at the top. Notice the surface play between the projecting band connecting the windowsills and the flat, horizontal surface band that is a continuous header for the windows.
Sullivan was known for his statement that, “Form follows function”. In keeping with this principal, the Van Allen building was designed around the selling floor. Since show windows were provided on the Second Street or east side of the building, but not on the west side, the front façade was not symmetrical. This was so skillfully handled that most who look at the south side of the building do not notice that the windows on the right are wider than those on the left. At first glance, the exterior of the building, aside from the floriated columns described above, seems to be rather plain. Then the careful eye can detect the façade alive with detail, even on the underside of the window soffits. When looking at the front or south side of the building, the stylized VA is in cream on a blue background. This suggests that Sullivan, whose father was of Irish ancestry and whose mother was French-Swiss ancestry, was sensitive to John D. Van Allen’s Dutch heritage. The colors chosen for this terracotta resemble Delft china. It is notable that at one time, when John Van Allen was concerned about the cost of the building, Sullivan is reported to have suggested that substituting common brick for the special narrow brick used in the building could save cost. To his credit, John Van Allen decided to remain with the more expensive brick alternative. Sullivan was very hands on during the construction of the building, sitting on a keg of nails to observe and supervise the construction of the building.